We’ve become so used to the ubiquitous rock festival we tend to forget it once didn’t exist! Amateur historians point to the Monterey Pop Festival (Monterey, CA, June, 1967) as the first, but—as Rolling Stone reminds us—the first rock/pop festival was Fantasy Fair & Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County, CA. Sponsored by San Francisco’s KFRC, this concert took place one week before Monterey Pop.
The Doors, Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Fifth Dimension, and the Steve Miller Blues Band were among the 30+ acts who performed for the 36,000 people in attendance on June 10-11. In some ways it was a local crunchy-granola music-and-arts festival, which wound up exceeding all expectations, proclaiming the “Summer of Love” had begun. Most of the performers were pleasantly surprised by the looseness and informality of it and—with no dressing rooms available—they hung out and participated in the event with everyone else.
It’s certainly appropriate to praise such artistic endeavors, conducted in an altruistic spirit for a worthy cause (child care centers, in this case). But it’s too easy to use them as a foil to condemn profit-making ventures, as many interviewees did in the Rolling Stone piece by denouncing the commerciality of the subsequent “international” rock festivals. Yet without those early blockbusters—Monterey Pop, the Newport (California) Pop Festival, Woodstock, Isle of Wight—the music scene might not have exploded into what it is today. There might be no rock counter-culture (or Rolling Stone magazine to report on it). Fast forward four decades: Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and dozens of other annual fests showcase the best current and emerging talent. These events may not be your can of beer but they keep a lot of good musicians alive.
Rock & roll will always be a business. No one knew this better than the iconic band that is forever associated with the Summer of Love: the Grateful Dead. They played for the joy of playing, but they also aspired to make a living from it and quickly learned to make it profitable. No major artist in that period performed more free concerts—or encouraged more free taping of their shows. But as more fans were exposed to the Dead’s music more fans paid to see them play and bought their records. The Dead learned they could "give it away" AND charge for it. No conflict. Do both. This ethos paved the way for the “Fremium” business model of the internet, as mentioned here.
That said, Fantasy Fair was a special moment in rock history, and appropriately named given the early innocence it represented that couldn't last. Singer-songwriter P.F. Sloan (who wrote “Eve of Destruction”—mentioned here) captures the spirit of it in his remarks to Rolling Stone. Just before going on stage, he was offered some medicine by the famous Doctor Owsley (featured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and was unable to recall much of anything afterwards. He was told later he performed one song for 24 minutes, including a bass solo for six minutes. Sloan’s response: “I remember none of this. I do remember the entire audience turning into this undulating love jello.”
Unfortunately my band, The Morning—who had opened shows for some of the acts performing at Fantasy Fair—was 3,000 miles away, playing in New York’s Greenwich Village. (New York audiences were NOT undulating love jello.) We eventually made it to the San Francisco area, playing at the Berkeley Folk Festival a year later with the Airplane, Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and many others. (That audience was a little closer to love jello. Maybe polite tapioca.)
Sadly, I’ve yet to encounter an audience—for my musical performances or my business workshops—that I would characterize as undulating love jello. But that romantic quest keeps me going. Still seeking that fantasy fair.